A different way to celebrate birthdays

 How do you celebrate your birthday?

Today, I joined over 100 people to celebrate Lillian Owen’s 96th birthday. (Lillian is the last remaining sibling sister of our Sister Irene Demarrias. Since we’re related to Sr. Irene, we’re related to Lillian, too.)
Crystal, the woman with the mic, is one of Lillian’s 9 children.

Instead of all the guests bringing gifts for the birthday girl, we celebrated in a traditional way of honoring important events. It is called wawicakupi (we give things away to many) or more commonly wopida (gratitude/gratefulness). It’s like a birthday party in reverse! Every guest receives gifts to take home! These are not simply party favors- guests received things like a grill, setsof pots and pans, blenders, coffee machines, blankets, household items, quilts, etc.

Lillian’s family hosted the wopida over at St. Kateri’s Parish Hall. They put on a huge feast with every kind of food, both traditional and “usual,” so as to honor all the guests who came. The “feed” started after prayer; Lillian’s nephews and grandsons and great-grandsons all sing at the drum. There was venison and turkey, chicken and spaghetti, mashed potatoes and waskuya (a soup made with dried corn and tripe), every kind of “hotdish”, puddling, and of course, mountains of fry bread. Feasting took several hours, and there was as much food going home as wateca (food you take home after a feast to keep the feast going in your own tipi) as there was enjoyed right there.

A high school student from my school, who is one of Lillian’s great grandsons, sang an honor song for her that he’d composed. I videoed a part of it here. I hope the video works! A few things of note: 
  • He introduces himself and explains the song using the traditional Dakota language. Lillian is one of the 20 or so remaining primary Dakota language speakers on this reservation. Her grandson is one of a new generation of Dakota language speakers, committed to keeping the language from extinction. 
  • As he starts the song, you’ll see everyone stand up. That’s because an honor song is considered sacred and so you stand.
  • At the end of the song (not on the video), women responded in a traditional way- a high pitched, singing, nasal call of li-li-li-li-li. It’s a woman’s way of applauding or showing support or congratulations. 

[Historical note: It has only been since 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed that traditional prayers, ceremonials, honor songs, and even such cultural acts such as li-li-li-li were legally permitted. Traditional spiritualities only survived because they were continued in secret. More on this here.]

Several others came forward to speak and/or to sing. One woman, of the Ponca Nation from Omaha, who had married into the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe and thus become a relative of Lillian, sang a song in the Ponca language. It, too, was a prayer.

One of Lillian’s favorite things to do is to play BINGO. So, of course, we played BINGO! Now, I am absolutely not a Bingo fanatic (actually, I’ve mostly just played it with kids in the classroom.) But, guess what? Today, I actually won a round! Thus, this was an historical day! I even took a picture of my winning card, to preserve it for our SDS archives. ? 

{If you are saying, “What? I see no Bingo here…” that’s because those four making a square are called a “postage stamp” and the games played were for five in a row, four-corners, or “postage stamp.” I always do learn new, important, life-changing things from experiences like these!}

The BINGO winners (there were many!) each received a big box, bag, or tub of prizes and gifts from Lillian’s family. My box included washcloths, scented candles, scented soaps, hand towels, a beautiful holiday centerpiece, some treats, etc. I gave my box to the elder I sat beside. She “interpreted” the Bingo caller as he called the numbers so I, unable to hear him and too far away to speech-read him, could still keep up! I owed my winning to her!

The wopida was still going strong when I needed to take my wateca and head home for a nap. In fact, there are STILL cars and trucks parked all along the road down to St. Kateri’s. I bet folks are still celebrating Lillian and her life!